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Unicoi County seeks state, federal assistance after third major flood in 13 months

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Apr 14, 2020 at 10:25 PM

ERWIN — After three major floods in just over a year, officials in Unicoi County are stepping up their request for state and federal assistance with road repairs and stream mitigation to protect lives, homes and businesses from future disasters.

County Major Garland “Bubba” Evely said damage caused by Monday’s early morning deluge, when approximately 3.5 inches of rain fell on the southern end of the county, was the most extreme of three major floods that have struck in the past 13 months.

On Spivey Mountain, Tilson Mountain and Temple Hill at Sandy Bottom, washed out roadways cut off access to several remote communities where the receded flood waters left behind damaged property, homes and businesses.

Sheriff Mike Hensley, who chronicled the danger the flooding posed to county residents in a series of social media posts, said all available first responders were called just after midnight to assist in alerting residents and evacuating those in areas where water had risen around homes. In sections where roadways washed out, Hensley said citizens on the eastern side of the washouts were called on to divert traffic moving west out of North Carolina toward the flooding.

Evely said Unicoi County Road Superintendent Terry Haynes and county highway department crews worked around the clock to reopen access to Sprivy Mountain through the Clear Branch and Coffee Ridge communities Tuesday morning. And around 11 a.m. Tuesday, Hensley announced state highway workers had reopened one lane of the state route leading into the Tilson Mountain area.

Haynes said about 20 homes in the Tumbling Creek section of the Temple Hill community were still without access at 5 p.m. Tuesday and he expected county crews to have the road reopened by nightfall or early Wednesday morning.

Preliminary estimates of the road damage caused by Monday’s flooding are at about $450,000 and do not include damage caused to private property. Evely said the county had not yet been reimbursed for repairs made by the county road crews following the last major flood in January when Monday’s flooding washed away much of repairs that had made since then.

On Tuesday morning, State Senator Rusty Crowe, who has been working with the county on flood mitigation efforts for the past several months, and US Congressman Phil Roe, joined Evely, Haynes and other county officials on a tour several of the worst hit areas as well as the bridge on North Main Avenue in Erwin where flooding has also been a persistent problem.

Evely said, “We are trying to get funding to repair some of that and to address the underlying issues at Temple Hill and other places to cut down on flooding in the first place. Terry has met with (the state Department of Environment and Conservation) and the state (Environmental Protection Agency) office and they are pretty stringent on what they will allow in and around streams. There are state and federal regulations we have to deal with.

”What we are asking our state and federal legislators is to address our underlying problems and get us some help there. Temple Hill especially is a phenomenal problem for our county. We expressed what our underlying problems are to Senator Crowe and Congressman Roe,” he said.

In addition to the road damage and the recurring expense of road repairs, Haynes said, “The people who live in those areas should not have to worry about losing a member of their family or seeing their home washed away every time they call a flood watch.

“It’s sad. These people need help. This is where we need to get our state senator and representatives and our congressman to help these people. So myself and the sheriff and the mayor are the (county) commission are telling them what we need to do and what we want to do but we are not allowed to do.”

Both Haynes and Evely said the last substantial assistance with flood control Unicoi County received from the federal government came in the 1970s when the Army Corps of Engineers dredged major streams following one of the largest floods of the last half century. And Haynes advocated for a repeat of that remedy.

“I understand where they are coming from to protect aquatic life. But if they dredge it, it will heal itself. In 40 years it fills up again. It’s all talk now. But we need money and it needs to be done again,” he said.

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